The Accent Effect

In a city of accents, what's considered 'cute' versus 'foreign' reveals a hierarchy

By all accounts, Yunxiang Gao is a well-educated, qualified professor and her credentials and accolades speak volumes, yet some students fixate on her accent.

Studies have shown that listeners make value judgments about a speaker based on their accent

Yunxiang Gao, an associate professor at Ryerson University, says student evaluations at the end of the semester sometimes mention her accent. (CBC)

At the end of the semester, Yunxiang Gao is rated by her students in an anonymous evaluation. They mention the course load, her lecture style and at times — her accent.

They write that they never got "used to it."

For much of her adult life, Gao lived in North America. First to pursue a PhD at the University of Iowa and later, living and teaching in Toronto. But like nearly 23 per cent of Canadians, as data from the 2016 Census shows, neither official language is her mother tongue. 

Do you speak with an accent? How do you feel about it? How do others make you feel about it? Share your experience at torontotips@cbc.ca or call our VoxBox at 416-205-2595.

Gao was born in Inner Mongolia, China, and her speech bears traces of that region.

Accents can conjure up a variety of assumptions about a speaker, said University of Alberta professor emeritus Tracey Derwing, who has researched accents for more than 20 years. And people who harbour negative prejudices about a certain group may attribute those biases to a person with that accent — a tendency that Murray Munro, a linguistics professor at Simon Fraser University, characterizes as "accent stereotyping."

Similarly, a review of social psychology research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2010 reported that, over and over again, researchers found that listeners make value judgments about a speaker — whether they are friendly or lazy or intelligent — based on their accent.

By all accounts, Gao is a well-educated, qualified professor and her credentials and accolades speak volumes, yet some students fixate on her accent. 

"They don't say it to my face, of course. Just end of the term, you would read, 'Professor Gao is good professor but she has an accent,'" she told CBC Toronto.

A review, written anonymously on Rate My Professors, is among several on the site that reference Gao's accent. (Rate My Professors/CBC)

Reviews on Rate My Professors, a website that solicits anonymous student feedback, discourage taking her Chinese history courses at Ryerson University, citing her accent. One review called it "molasses-thick," but Gao is not ruffled by it or similar remarks.

"I do have an accent," she said. "Over time, they are going to get used to it. They do learn, so I have no problem."

"I think, if [students] have less experience in listening to different styles of talking, they tend to probably notice it more and comment more."

Train listeners, linguistics prof says

There are people who just shut down as soon as they hear an accent. And that's just wrong.- Tracey  Derwing , University of Alberta professor emeritus Tracey  Derwing

Part of the issue is just that: a lack of exposure to speakers with accents, said Derwing.

"It's always easier to process speech that is quite similar to our own. But in fact, the more familiar you become with accented speech, the easier it is to process that speech as well," she told CBC Toronto.

There are factors — improper grammar or limited vocabulary, for instance — that may make a speaker hard to understand, but the listener is likely to blame an accent, Derwing said.

University of Alberta professor emeritus Tracey Derwing has studied accents for over 20 years. (CBC)

"There are people who just shut down as soon as they hear an accent. And that's just wrong."

"If people have a preconceived notion that they're not going to understand someone who has accented speech, then it's quite likely that they're not going to."

In her research, Derwing says a so-called heavy accent is easily understood and intelligible but listeners may equate that with not having a grasp of English. And those who speak English with a "foreign" accent are judged more harshly.

'What is standard English?'

As a graduate student, Gao overheard a student talking about a "cute" British accent, making an accent hierarchy of sorts apparent to her.

"I wonder about how different accents were treated differently," she said. "I thought he wouldn't say, 'He has a Chinese accent. Oh, this accent is so cute, so admirable.'"

As a new addition to Ryerson's Department of History in 2005, Gao said she went to accent reduction classes, though she would not specify at whose request.

"I was told when I first came here to attend this class, to teach correct pronunciation; to reduce accent," she said. "I went but I don't know how much it worked. So here I am."

"I imagine people from Great Britain with British accents would never be asked to go."

In a statement to CBC Toronto, Ryerson said it had no record of a course of that kind being offered at its Learning & Teaching Office in 2005.

For Gao, if you have a command of the language and people can understand you, an accent is irrelevant.

"What is standard English? What is standard pronunciation? It depends on where you are, what time period you are."

She said people who speak with a "non-native" accent should not feel "defeated" or "inferior."

Fitting in versus losing roots

But a desire to fit in can be powerful, said Magdalena Diaz, who took years to embrace her Spanish accent.

She said she used to avoid saying certain words that made her accent appear to be more pronounced.

Diaz, who oversees community and family services at the Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre, said as a young woman, she felt exoticized and not taken seriously.

She recalls giving a presentation early in her career, only to be met with remarks about her "cute and sexy" accent.

It took years for Magdalena Diaz to embrace her Spanish accent, she says. (Submitted)

"I was a little nervous so my accent came out a lot more pronounced," she said. "And rather than listen to the content of my presentation ... I had a couple of people who made comments about it being cute and sexy; that it was so nice to hear that accent. It took away from the seriousness of the presentation."

"I find it disrespectful. To me, I don't want to be seen as sexy. I want to be seen as a person who has a mind, who functions, who contributes."

Diaz said the struggle to fit in versus protect her roots was most evident to her when she visited her birthplace of Chile and was laughed at for having a "gringo accent." 

"It made me upset that I actually tried to distance myself from my culture. And now I just embrace it."

The Accent Effect is a CBC Toronto series looking at accents and how they might shape the way we are viewed by others and the way we view ourselves. Share your experience at torontotips@cbc.ca or call our VoxBox at 416-205-2595.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that 23% of Canadians report a mother tongue other than English. In fact, that figure refers to both official languages.
    Feb 12, 2018 12:59 PM ET